Snowtouched

Chapter 25: Bearyenas in the Grass

Kois sprang to her feet. "With me if you can fight!" she called, shouting above the sound of Prinu calling his brother's name. She leapt off into the grass, a paw's-count of nichelings on her tail. In the distance she heard scuffles and growls, and there in the shadow, as they ran deeper through the trees, she saw the bearyena.

Despite the situation she could not help a tinge of relief that she faced a single bearyena and not another ape. But it still held Donnu tight in its jaws, shaking him as a nicheling would shake a rabbil. His screams cut through her ears. All that stopped the bearyena making off with him was Kuku, a nicheling who was no warrior as much as he fancied himself one. With his jaws clamped around the beast's hindleg and his claws dug into the ground, he strained to keep his ground, a low growl emanating from his throat. The bearyena kicked, but he hung on.

Kois slammed her tail into the ground. The resounding thud shook the earth and reverberated through the trees, shaking leaves and vines. High above, a clatter of wings heralded startled birds darting from the canopy to the safety of the skies. Slowly, all sound ceased. There were no growls, no struggles. Either side of Kois, nichelings brandished claws and teeth. Rara was first to join in, followed by Meana, and Tanu at the rear. Even Anameis stood by Kois' side, her tail raised and bristling. Kuku's eyes swivelled in his rescuers' direction, but he still would not let go.

Donnu hung limp from the bearyena's mouth. His eyes stared at nothing, and Kois strained to hear what she hoped was his panicked breathing.

"Drop him," Kois warned, "and go."

The bearyena watched, ears flattened, deep-set eyes darting from one nicheling to the next. Kois swung her tail, and began to growl another warning. All around, her tribemates joined in the furious song. For one fleeting instant, the bearyena looked as though it would see how outmatched it was and obey. But hunger got the better of it, and it kicked one powerful hindleg into a distracted Kuku's face, sending him rolling over and over in the dirt, and tried to run. Kois's muscles bunched and she closed the distance in one leap. Her claws hooked into the bearyena's flanks through layers of coarse brown fur. It thrashed around, trying to shake her away, but though she felt warm blood well up under her paws, it held tight to Donnu.

Out of the side of Kois' vision dashed an orange blur, and she remembered a day like this when it was her life she fought for - and how it ended. She closed her eyes tight and burrowed her nose into the bearyena's musky coat. Through pressed back ears she heard Anameis' cry of "Can't you hear?!" and imagined her shouting it over her shoulder, rear end pointed at the bearyena's face.

Even through the stink of the beast's pelt, the scent of Anameis' spray sank into her nostrils and forced her eyes to water. At the bearyena's roar of pain and a soft thud, she rolled from its back. The bearyena stumbled backwards, pawing at its eyes where Anameis must have scored a direct hit. Through the miasma of decay, she scented blood, and saw Donnu's white markings, crisp against the dark earth and fallen leaves of the forest floor. She ignored the bearyena and lifted him in her jaws, as gently as she could. She found Kuku standing a little way off, watching dazed from behind a buttressed tree root, and deposited Donnu by his side.

Behind her the screams turned to roars as the rest of the fighters fell upon the bearyena. Kois ignored it. She gave Donnu a few brisk licks, trying to rub some life back into him while Kuku called his name. To her relief the little two-gem was still breathing, and managed to focus his eyes on his cousin.

"You're amazing..." Kuku gasped.

"Get him back to the camp and keep the bites clean," said Kois. She tasted blood on Donnu's coat, and knew as well as anyone his survival depended on it. The two-gem lay in shock, staring up at Kuku in a daze, unable to comprehend what to do, but Kuku was a big nicheling and he lifted Donnu by the scruff, carrying him away like a cub.

With them both safely out of the way, Kois turned her attention back to the fight. The bearyena struggled under Meana and Tanu's weight, and its body shuddered under the influence of Tanu's venomous bite. With a feeling that might have been dismay, but could have been relief, she saw Rara hanging onto the beast's throat. Blood matted its fur where her claws dug in, and she held her strong jaws clamped over its trachea. Kois watched it stumble, mouth opening and closing in a futile gasp for breath. With a thud as strong as Kois' tail slamming upon the earth, the bearyena fell. Its limbed twitched, and it lay still.

"There you go, Tanu!" Rara boasted. "A proper hunt for your first gem! You're lucky!"

Tanu pawed at his mouth, less thrilled at the idea from the distasteful wrinkling of his snout. "Got a gem, lost a tooth!" he grouched, and Kois could see blood flowing from where one of his fangs had snapped off in the bearyena's flesh. It was nothing to be overly concerned about - unlike other teeth, venom fangs regrew to compensate for their fragility - but Tanu grimaced at the taste of all that blood (and the wound to his vanity on top).

"Where did Donnu go?" said Meana.

"Kuku is taking him back," said Kois. She noticed Rara was watching her, standing over the dead bearyena's shoulder, as if daring her to say something. Kois stayed quiet. If Rara wanted a protest to smirk over, she wasn't getting it. Yet a tinge of regret stung at Kois' gems as she sniffed the corpse, though she let nobody see. "Take this back too," she said. Her nose twitched at Anameis' rotten-meat scent over the creature's face. "But not too close."

"Could have warned me about that, Orange!" said Rara. "How do you do it?"

Anameis waved her tail. "You have it or you don't!"

Kois joined in hauling their kill back to the camp. It wasn't the first time she'd hunted bearyenas, for all Rara thought. It would keep the tribe fed, and Donnu and his family would feel better for seeing it dead. She had given it a fair warning, one that it declined to listen to. Nevertheless, a silent apology stalked through her mind as she dragged the corpse away.

She returned at last to find the tribe keeping a respectful distance from Kuku and his cousins. Making a quick headcount, she felt a wave of relief at finding everyone accounted for. But Donnu lay still in his nest while Kuku licked a nuzzled at his limp form, and Prinu watched with his paws draped over the nest's side. As Kois approached, the scent of blood grew stronger. The little nicheling's breathing had turned fast and shallow, and his gems dulled to a murky green.

"He's gone all rabbil," said Kuku. And Kois had never seen Kuku, of all nichelings, look so small. He might be a bold and reckless idiot, to hear some of the others speak, but she could not fault his bravery. Now his red and white coat bristled with worry, his ears low and his body hunched over the nest. Dried blood clung thick and dark to lines scored across his muzzle where the bearyena kicked him away, but he seemed not to notice or care.

Kois peered closer at Donnu. The bearyena had seized him around the middle, and rows of deep puncture wounds marked where its teeth sunk in. Fortunately Donnu did not suffer from the flowing blood, so Kuku had been able to stem the immediate bleeding, but Kois could see the damage ran deep. For all she wanted to tell Kuku he would be fine, they both knew nobody could speak with such certainty.

"Anameis!" Kois said, and the orange nicheling came hopping over, ears low. "Do any of the plants you gave me grow here?"

"I think I've seen some about," Anameis said.

"Show me," said Kois.

To her relief Anameis had remembered correctly, and they found one of the healing plants not far away, hidden in the shade of a buttress root. It was the first time Kois had seen one of them growing, and she committed the plant's low form and nest of long dark leaves to memory. A single orange fruit grew cushioned in the middle, and it was this that Anameis plucked and carried back. "Get him to eat this," Kois said, when Anameis laid it in front of the nest. "It takes away the pain. I know."

Donnu was still lost in a daze, but managed to gulp down a few clusters of the fruit after Prinu and Kuku tore it open. A sharp citrus scent wafted from the bright orange flesh. In that curious way scents have of bringing forth memories, Kois found herself back in Anameis' den, telling stories of her tribe, seeing Yuki safe and alive, and that realisation, delving deep into her thoughts, that she loved Laana. She shook her head, as though heavy rains had left her pelt soaked with water. Too much had happened today.

She left Kuku and his cousins alone. There was no more she could do for them. All she wanted now was to sit by Laana's side for a while and leave everything else behind.

"Kois?" Meana trotted up to her side. "Does this mean we're staying here?"

"Until it's safe to move Donnu," said Kois.

"Oh, good," snapped a nearby Tanu. "More waiting!" He flashed a lopsided, one-fanged snarl at a passing Kirro, who backed off with lowered ears.

"That's enough," said Kois, moving over to stand between the two. "This is unfortunate. But it's nobody's fault." If it is anyone's, she thought, in the privacy of her own mind, it is mine, for forgetting about the bearyena's scent.

Tanu slunk away, joined by Meana who draped her tail over his back. "Don't worry about this," she said to Kirro. "Nobody's blaming you. This is just a hard time."

"I know. Better tell everyone else not to die," said Kirro, but he spoke with a faint purr to diffuse the tension, and wandered off to rejoin the tribe.

Kois licked down some stray fur on her ruff, and her ears swivelled at the sound of soft paws behind her. "Laana," she said. "How are you and Yuki?"

"Yuki... is fine." Laana paused, and though Kois lifted her head, inviting her to nuzzle her gems, she did not move any closer. Instead she worried at a tangled spot in her fur, not quite meeting Kois' eyes. "May I talk?"

"Are you hurt?" said Kois. But she could see no sign of injury. Even the burnt patches of Laana's coat were almost regrown. "Is anyone else?"

"No." Laana kept looking away, deep into the trees. "But something is... I can't say it here. Into the grass. Please."

Kois looked back, but nobody seemed to want her attention. Puzzled, she followed Laana deeper into the undergrowth. As a day longer than it had any right to be drew to a close, the light around the two nichelings started to drain from the world around them. Feathery fern leaves brushed against Kois' sides as she pushed her way through. She recognised Rara and Meana's scent from when they had passed this way not long ago, and it jolted her memory. "Laana? This is where we destroyed one of the plants."

"It is?" Laana kept her back to Kois, pausing in her path. "Oh... that is fine..." Though a rippling shudder flowed down her spine, she pressed on, emerging into the space where the plant's remains still sat, gaping open to the far above canopy. Its spray of fruits growing from the centre still exuded a sweet, tempting scent, but both nichelings ignored it.

Laana stopped in her tracks. Slowly, ears flat and head low, she crept up to the plants as though stalking prey. Her whiskers trembled as she touched her nose to one of the gigantic petals. She flinched, but stayed close.

Kois held back. "It's dead now. We made sure of it." Had the bearyena attack pushed Laana to face her fear? Was she so frightened of the jungle after all it threw at them that she stared it down, daring it to do its worst? Now she put Kois in the mind of prey, not predator, prey watching its hunter chase it down, yet doing nothing in the face of its own end.

Laana hopped around the plant, sniffing, twitching her nose. Eventually she sat beside it and touched a hesitant paw to the nearest petal. She trembled, but kept it in place, stroking the smooth inner surface. When she spoke, her eyes and voice held that far-off quality that made Kois wonder who she was actually speaking to. "I haven't been able to see anything for so long, now. Not since the sign of the snows."

"Because you are far from the sea?" Kois wanted to rush in and wrap a strong paw around Laana's body, but she kept a respectful distance.

"Yes... and no. I feel as if I can see the shape of things. Only the shape. I feel as if I have scented something I have never seen before... or I can hear a call, but I don't know what bird made it." Laana stared off into the twilight depths of the forest. "I am far from the sea. But that is not why. This is a warning."

"The bearyena?" Kois said, recalling its unnatural determination.

"The bearyena, the sickness, the plants, the storm." Laana ran her paws over the vine that Meana had coiled up by the plant's side. She lifted it in her nimble paw and stroked it as though she had never seen such a thing before. For a few heartbeats she was lost in contemplation. "I can't keep doing this, Kois. How long before one of us is killed? And you... you haven't even seen the snow! The sea is still sending me its signs, and these are punishments."

"Punishments, what for?" Kois could help herself no longer, and gently nuzzled Laana's shoulder, respectfully keeping from her gems but hoping to bring the stricken seer some small comfort in her half-trance. But Laana did not acknowledge the touch. She kept running her paws over the plant, caressing her fear. "I don't know these things," Kois said. "But you found the sign of the snows, and that means we were meant to be here."

At those words, Kois felt Laana grow tense by her side. "That is why," Laana said. "That's why I had to tell you. There never was any sign of the snows, Kois. I made it all up, that morning on the sand."